In the normal scheme of things, at a normal club in normal times, Manchester United’s games this week against Bayern Munich and at Liverpool would be painted as two that could save – or sink – Erik ten Hag’s job.
But United, at present, is far from a normal club.
As Ten Hag stormed down the Old Trafford tunnel, his mood as dark as the skies following his side’s capitulation to Bournemouth on Saturday, his thoughts will have been turning towards a week which, in normal circumstances, might have been expected to determine his fate.
One prominent pundit, Danny Murphy, responded in the wake of what was generally perceived as the lowpoint of Manchester United’s season by declaring that Ten Hag should be sacked, that his position has become untenable.
The current United regime remains steadfast in its insistence that Ten Hag is under no pressure, that there has been no discussion about replacing a manager who, on a seemingly weekly basis, has been setting new marks for futility not seen in decades by their supporters.
Part of the reason lies in his team’s unerring ability, one based in their chronic inconsistency, to snatch good results out of dire situations.
The other comes from the stasis in ownership that has existed at the very top at Old Trafford for over a year now, since the unpopular American owners, the Glazer family, put United up for sale in November 2022.
It took 11 months, until the middle of October, for a buyer to be confirmed, although it came in the form of the 25 per cent stake agreed by lifelong United supporter, billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, a deal which cost him around £1.35 billion.
With it, Ratcliffe is expected to take over football operations, the key decisions that determine the fate of any football club on a daily basis but, particularly, when it comes to the two transfer windows – one of which now opens in less than three weeks – and the support, or sacking, of managers.
Yet, despite tantalising reports, on an apparently weekly basis, that the deal is to be formalised and announced within a matter of short days, there has been no completion of the deal and United find themselves in a curious ownership limbo – not in terms of finance, perhaps, but in terms of football operations.
Richard Arnold has already resigned as CEO, with reports that he was under no pressure to do so but felt the writing was on the wall in terms of what Ratcliffe, and the men who are expected to run his football operations, headed by former British Cycling guru Sir Dave Brailsford, would do upon arrival.
Patrick Stewart stepped in as interim CEO, ensuring the smooth running of the club on a day-to-day basis, while football director John Murtough is hopeful of surviving whatever sweeping changes Ratcliffe does, or does not, decide to carry out on a football club that is clearly not fit for purpose when it comes to the stated goal of competing for the top four in the Premier League.
Ten Hag, open and frank after the Bournemouth defeat, admitted that his squad is “not good enough to be consistent” – a damning indictment of a team amassed for huge sums of money and which has, almost incredibly, a record of 11 wins, 11 defeats and one draw in 23 league and cup games this season.
If the logical conclusion of that analysis is that United need to spend significantly in the January window, then the people who will be taking over the club’s football business will hope to be in place by then although, in the real world, deals will already be being discussed behind the scenes across Europe.
As for the manager’s position, in the usual run of football affairs, there would be screams of Ten Hag having “two games to save his job” at the start of a week which could end with his team out of Europe completely and on the receiving end of another Anfield humiliation.
Captain Bruno Fernandes has already indicated his feelings about the latter by collecting a needless booking for dissent, late against Bournemouth, which suspends him from the return to a ground where Ten Hag’s side were beaten 7-0 nine months ago.
But should the worst happen – and everything about United’s inconsistent season suggests it will not, with the more likely outcome being a superb result in one of those fixtures – then the current state of uncertainty over the exact structure of the club’s ownership begs many questions.
Not least is the question of who would be charged with taking the decision to sack a manager while potential new minority owners, who will have a majority say in football matters, are still waiting in the wings to complete their deal?
Conversely, should Ratcliffe push through the deal in the timeframe of “days” that have been promised for two months now, would he reasonably be expected to make his first act as new minority owner to be the dismissal of a manager who, despite an often miserable season, does not yet appear to have lost the backing of United supporters or the majority of the dressing room.
There are many other football issues – and even more non-footballing – that must be tackled by the new regime with decisiveness and speed when they finally collect the “keys” to Old Trafford.
But for now, the most average of teams – won 11, lost 11 – will, presumably, be left to continue in a similar vein.